Remember that irritating ‘Greatest Brit’ vote the Beeb inflicted upon us a while back? My incensed flatmate was driven to staple a giant sheet to the lounge wall, for us to come up with a contrary list. Trying to lower the tone, I stream-of-consciousnessed up some names, and looked back when I’d finished to find I’d included ‘Ari Up out the Slits’. (Ignoring the fast she’s semi-German, but then so’s the Queen.) I don’t think I’d actually put on a Slits song in years, but I guess stream-of-consciousness naturally takes you to her.
Flash forward a few months, and rumours are circulating town of a reformed Slits gig. Opinion is divided. The news that Ari’ll be the only original member there is enough to swear off some. I’m divided, too. I love the classic Slits, the Slits of those early singles and Peel sessions that seem to come straight from the beating heart of chaos. The journo phrase “reggae influenced” doesn’t cover it. By this time the streets were clogged with clueless white kids fumbling with nicked reggae licks. The Slits, beyond that, took that loopy Lee Perry dub sensibility, where you tear apart a song and re-assemble it into some insane Frankenstein re-order. Only they didn’t accomplish this in post-production, tinkering with controls between spliffs, but made it happen live before a bemused John Peel engineer.
What’s more, they then shoehorned this dub freakery to some pounding glitter-stomp beats, like they were thrashing out the buzzsaw original and conjuring up the barmy dub remix at one and the same time. That sounds impossible. In fact it still sounds impossible even when I’m listening to them doing it. I play my old tapes like a baffled outsider, with no idea how they’re keeping it together, or whether it’s some secret magic only they held or just a happy accident.
By the time it came for them to do proper grown-up albums the spark had, by almost universal agreement, fled. The band split and Ari vanished for Jamaica, where she languished from that day to this. This outcome would suggest the pure accident option to be more likely. Isn’t it a hopeless dream for just one ex-member to recapture what was already lost over two decades ago? But I’m swung when I hear the new band have new material, suggesting at least an attempt at more than a greatest hits package. There’s still trepidation, but I go.
As soon as Ari takes the stage one thing becomes clear – she’s still crazy after all these years. More than common tall, she sports a hat apparently made of knitting balls perched upon her dreads, and dances by rubbing her arse over the other band members like a cat on heat.
It also becomes clear that, despite the audience-luring name on the posters, the band’s really the Ari Up Experience (a phrase she uses) who only sometimes raid the Slits back-catalogue. She’s as devoted as ever to what Marley called the ‘Punky Reggae Party’ (a song she covers), but the intervening years of Jamaican sun ’n’ spliff have tipped her towards the reggae end of things. Some of the angrier Slits covers don’t quite work; songs in her hands have gone from bricks to chuck to lumps of play-dough to mould and reshape.
The nearest sound-bite I could muster for it was ‘Drunken German Countess Fronts Demented Reggae Band for Party Set’. But you probably need game shows, British innuendo and the surrealist politics of desire in there as well. It’s partly great because it’s so funny, but not in a hackeneyed jokes sense. Just to hear her demented whooping and chirruping makes me laugh, just like hearing Captain Beffheart’s voice makes me laugh. ‘Shoplifting’ is no po-faced anarcho-screed about what’s wrong with ‘the system’, but a joyous celebration of all the neat stuff that’s yours once you just slip it in your pocket.
Songs stretch out and sometimes merge, sometimes crash into each other as she swaps everything around and launches into yet another rant or anecdote without warning the band first. Someone shouts for ’Typical Girls’, but she’s forgotten how it goes.
People keep getting pulled on stage. Some are pre-arranged guest slots. Others seem to be old friends who get dragged up anyway. (One ex-Slit original has to be dragged and carried up.) More just get dragged on for the sheer sake of it. Those too drunk to dodge it find themselves forced into doing backing vocals for some song they never heard, or subject to some totally tangential line of interrogation.
In short, it’s impossible to work out what’s been planned and what just happens to be happening. Events constantly teeter over some abyss but, just like the old days, somehow stay focused. She’s like the eye of the hurricane, forever stirring up more chaos only to alchemically transform it into something. She seems to need the chaos, like a sculptor perpetually needs more clay. It’s like her mind’s working twice as fast as ours, and in twenty different directions. As soon as things are working smoothly, she needs to throw in another wild card just to keep herself interested.
At one point she rails against “tourist punks” who “didn’t get the point”. “Bring back anarchy in music!” someone shouts into the mike in response. (She’s been passing mikes about again.) The problem for the management is more getting rid of it, however. They finally succeed only by turning all the house lights on.
My toes curl to think of it now, but in my badge-wearing anarcho-fixated youth I thought of chaos as a bad word. Chaos was not what we were about. Now I see it as just another word for creativity, only shorter.
Her powerful yet self-depreciating personality is the show, good as the music is it’s just a launch-pad to get her going. She’s the strongest character I’ve stood before since Patti Smith last year. Though like Patti, and unlike Rotten or Iggy or even Mark E Smith, she’s never turned her personality into an asset, never caricatured herself. Her sheer lack of fear in continually pushing things and just trusting to fortune is compelling and intimidating at the same time.
Where from here? A clue lies in her frequent heartfelt pleas to interest us in the merchandise stall, as “we’re really skint right now”. Park punk legend, part Big Issue seller. T-shirt sales made here presumably count for more once you’re back in Jamaica. My guess is when she’s toured enough for the next few years worth of ganja and sarnies at Kingston prices she’ll disappear back again. And then when that runs out she’ll be back in the Pressure Point, crowned by knitting balls, funking geriatrically like nothing’s happened inbetween. Greatest living Brit? Pretty damn close!
...actually, from the obits, she only spent part of her post-Slits time in Jamaica. (Among other destinations, she lived among the tribal folks of Belize.) This clip’s from the Concorde show a year ago, which I couldn’t make. Despite the presence of original Slits bass player Tessa Pollitt, I’m not sure it rivals the earlier Pressure Point performance. But I still wish I could have been there...